I stepped into my multicultural counseling class at Cal State Northridge this year feeling hopeful. To prepare us for our future profession as school psychologists, we were going to get briefed on diversity and get glimpses into each other’s cultural worldviews. Both things which are totally my jam, and reasons why I went back to grad school in the first place — despite having four kids ages eight and under, and despite feeling too free-spirited for a buttoned-up, traditional career.
I was pumped until I peered into the textbook. Black oppression. White supremacy. Systemic racism. Huh? Were these concepts for real? I had spent the last 15 years of my life cloistered in Orthodox Jewish schools and communities and had barely encountered these ideas before. As a white, conservative student, I felt under attack, and quite unprepared to respond to the anger and hurt in the room. The whole experience was highly uncomfortable.
I reached out to friends, who all nodded their heads in understanding. It was the same old story of conservative student meets liberal classroom. Just bite your tongue and get through the course, said one friend. Another Whatsapped me that a friend of hers ended up dropping out of social work school because she couldn’t handle the liberal agenda. I pondered these suggestions, but dropping out was not affordable and keeping my mouth shut was not my style. So I turned to my usual tactic: I digested the topic to death in therapy.
As part of a course requirement, I was going to free, weekly therapy just off-campus. Together, my therapist and I unraveled my past and decided that the course was so reminiscent of my Berkeley days that it was emotionally triggering.
See, I grew up right outside Berkeley, California, and that city is in my blood. I’m happiest when sitting on the floor and watching my tots run half-naked and eat dirt. And despite the fact that I now live in L.A. and am surrounded by women with gleaming pedicures, the social inequities of getting an immigrant woman to work on my white-woman feet leaves me flustered. So my nails stay undone or amateurly streaked. I can joke about it in the Facebook group, “Your Mom is So Berkeley,” where fellow Berkeley children quip one-liners about our shared ridiculousness.
But there’s a dark side to Berkeley that we rarely discuss. Growing up there meant being surrounded by hate: Hatred of Republicans, hatred of Israel and hatred towards those socially irresponsible enough to have more than two kids.
“I’m a third child; it happens,” my teacher admitted in 9th grade social studies, as if at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. (He went on to assure us that he wasn’t planning on having any children of his own.) As a third child of four, and as a religious Jew with Republican parents, I learned to keep my mouth shut often.
But there was one person I was open with. She was Chinese-American and under staggering academic pressure. She would often pick up my phone calls in a whisper so that her parents wouldn’t know she had stopped studying or had taken a break from the unyielding hours of violin practice. Like me, she dreamed of escape. Once, she pulled a string around her neck until she turned blue in the mirror. Her theory was that before she was born she had chosen the wrong race — Chinese — and if she had asked God to be white and European, preferably German, her life would have glided along.
This friend was fascinated by my beliefs and by how I clung to an archaic religion. We were best friends until I did the unthinkable; I beat her on a math test. That day, she sent me a death threat. “We suggest you read this email carefully and do not assume anything. In the name of Hitler, may he rest in peace, we will come after you, your family and your synagogue. We will not rest until you are completely annihilated.” It was anonymous, so I shivered with terror until the police assigned someone to trace the email and she confessed to me. It was the end of our friendship and of my life in Berkeley. Soon after, I left town to attend an Orthodox Jewish high school for girls in Denver, Colorado, and said goodbye to public school and liberal environments forever.
Well, almost forever. Until this year, in my multicultural class. All of my old trauma from Berkeley came flooding back, and I could barely handle it. There were tears at home and emotional outbursts in class. I would protest to the professor about what I saw as one-sided readings, while she wondered in bewilderment why I was taking things so personally. At my breaking point, I walked out of a class session to sob in the stairwell, and I finally realized what was going on. It was PTSD, plain and simple, from one of the darker times of my life. It had little to do with the actual curriculum on racism and prejudice, and way more to do with my own past trauma.
But you don’t heal from something until you confront it. And my classmates and therapist, nearly all of whom were liberal and progressive, were supportive while I processed my past. They didn’t care about my politics; they cared that I was okay. They showed me that when liberals and conservatives meet in a properly engineered safe space, we can actually listen and respect each other.
I began reading The New York Times again (I had been avoiding it for years because it felt too liberal), and one of the first op-eds I read was about Better Angels, a group dedicated to depolarizing our country. They’re starting a grassroots movement of people who refuse to treat our political opponents as enemies, and who respectfully engage with, rather than avoid, those with whom we disagree. Naysayers may shake their heads, but I’ve learned from my multicultural class that there is hope for a different future, where liberals and conservatives treat each other like human beings. Together with a classmate I’m organizing a depolarizing workshop for graduate students and young professionals in the L.A.-area. If you’re intrigued and hopeful, like I am, you can find out more at www.better-angels.org.